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February 28, 2008 (updated May 8, 2008)

Pulitzer Prize Winner Margaret Edson to Deliver Commencement Address

Honorary degrees will be awarded to Edson, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and women’s rights advocate Beate Sirota Gordon.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Award-winning playwright Margaret Edson, a Smith College alumna who teaches kindergarten in the Atlanta public school system, will be the speaker at the college’s 130th commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. Sunday, May 18. Following her address, Edson and two other accomplished women will receive honorary degrees.

Edson graduated from Smith in 1983 with a degree in Renaissance history and afterward pursued a series of odd jobs, including bartending at a rural bar in Iowa, painting the interior of a Dominican convent in Rome and clerking in the cancer and AIDS inpatient unit at a hospital in Washington, D.C.

While working at a bicycle shop in 1991, Edson wrote the play “Wit,” the story of a scholar of 17th-century English poetry who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Although it took four years for Edson to find a theater company that would produce the play, once it was introduced to audiences, the production went on to win critical acclaim. In addition to garnering the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, “Wit” captured the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best new play and the Oppenheimer Award. When it was broadcast on HBO in 2001, the production won an Emmy for best film.

During her search for a producer for “Wit,” Edson earned a master’s degree in English literature from Georgetown University, where she defended her thesis on the use of poetry to teach reading by performing a rap song by Queen Latifah. She began teaching public school in the District of Columbia and later moved to Atlanta to accept her kindergarten post; it is the job of which she says she is most proud.

Of her work teaching children to read, Edson once noted: “That’s the biggest thing you learn in your whole life … It’s the thing that opens your mind the most, that gives you the most power.” Her own play, “Wit,” is widely used in high school English courses.

In addition to Edson, the following women will receive honorary degrees from Smith on May 18:

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent

Christiane Amanpour has reported on crises from many of the world’s news hotspots, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans. Her assignments have ranged from exclusive interviews with world leaders – British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, former Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev, among others – to reporting on the human consequences of natural disasters and wars. In all, Amanpour has won nine Emmy awards, including one for her documentary “Struggle for Islam.”


Beate Sirota Gordon, women’s rights advocate


At the age of 22, as a member of a team that worked under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Beate Sirota Gordon helped author an equal rights clause in Japan’s Constitution. Keeping in mind that the U.S. constitution had failed to specifically guarantee women’s rights, and drawing on her experience growing up in Japan, Gordon insisted on inserting a clause granting equal rights to Japanese women. Her memoir, “The Only Woman in the Room,” published in 2001, recounts her work for the government, work that was also publicized in the 2005 film “The Gift from Beate.”


Mae C. Jemison, who was to receive an honorary degree, is unable to attend the ceremony.

Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. By linking the power of the liberal arts to excellence in research and scholarship, Smith is developing leaders for society’s challenges. Smith is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country, enrolling 2,600 students from nearly every state and 61 other countries.

For information about disability access or to request accommodations, please call (413) 585-2407. To request a sign language interpreter specifically, call (413) 585-2071 (voice or TTY) or e-mail All requests must be made at least 10 days prior to the event.


Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole
Media Relations Director
T (413) 585-2190
F (413) 585-2174

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